Absent the convention of an “Introduction,” the reader of Debi and Irwin Unger’s new biography of George C. Marshall must get well along in the narrative before its purpose is grasped. From then on, clarity about what the authors are about intensifies: an attempted take-down of the historical reputation of the man generally regarded as America’s finest public servant in the 20th century.
Whether as Army Chief of Staff during World War II, special envoy to China in 1946, Secretary of State at the onset of the Cold War, or Secretary of Defense for one year during the Korean War, the Ungers’ Marshall is no exceptional soldier, strategist, or statesman that previous biographers Forrest Pogue, Ed Cray, and Mark Stoler have portrayed. In the Ungers’ estimation, “the Olympian persona that Marshall himself created protected him” from criticisms he deserved. In fact, one of his reputedly great successes, displayed in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor disaster, was instilling an “image” in the “minds of the nation’s leaders and the public at large” that shielded him from accountability. The Ungers have thus joined the “very few keen observers [who] saw beyond the conventional wisdom” while Marshall was alive.
The authors purport, in other words, to finally set the record straight. Their objectives are to diminish stature and dull luster. This intent informs their book’s substance and tone: transform a Marshall of heroic proportions into a man of “unremarkable powers” whose conduct “in many of his roles was less than awe-inspiring.”
What we have in 500 pages, though unannounced at the outset, is an exercise in historical revisionism, a brand of scholarship which can refine understanding of the past and serve a valuable end. Historians anticipate its customary emergence. Otherwise, human beings sometimes get confused with monuments.
Of would-be revisionists, however, tough questions should be asked. Preeminent among them are: Does the evidentiary foundation support a new and bold interpretation of the man and his career? Does it rest on previously unavailable primary sources? Or is it a fresh look at old sources, with the authors exploiting them with greater insight? To answer these three queries involves consulting their bibliography and footnotes.
The Ungers built their novel interpretation while virtually ignoring Marshall’s Papers. To their credit, they did utilize Pogue’s revealing interviews with the general, but in grappling with their subject they cite just four boxes in his voluminous papers and, alas, absolutely none in the scores of manuscript collections of associates and contemporaries. Their research trip to Lexington must have been a whirlwind affair.
Before discussing those scholarly appurtenances, it is important to identify the richest concentration of resources available for any serious study of Marshall and his times. In Lexington, Virginia, at the George C. Marshall Research Library are housed Marshall’s Papers, as well as personal papers of many associates and contemporaries, covering his life from 1932 until his death in 1959. They fill 255 boxes, taking up more than 115 linear feet of shelving. Extensive, if not exhaustive, work in this mother lode would seem essential—indeed, a minimum requirement—to take the full measure of Marshall for any revisionist account.
Such a check discloses that the Ungers built their novel interpretation while virtually ignoring Marshall’s Papers. To their credit, they did utilize Pogue’s revealing interviews with the general, but in grappling with their subject they cite just four boxes in his voluminous papers and, alas, absolutely none in the scores of manuscript collections of associates and contemporaries. Their research trip to Lexington must have been a whirlwind affair.
No Unerring Judge Of People
Limited archival digging, when combined with a compulsion to rewrite history, has its consequences. They involve, at least in this case, numerous unsustainable claims and much misunderstanding. Nonetheless, one fresh perspective the authors’ evidence does support is that the general has been overrated as a talent-spotter and judge of character. The so-called “Marshall Men,” mainly products of his five years (1927-1932) at Fort Benning revolutionizing infantry instructions and tactics, and his top selections for high command on World War II’s battlefields, were more of a mixed bag than usually thought.
Along with high achievers like Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Collins, Ridgway, and Eichelberger, “more than a few duds and mediocrities” managed to rise into Marshall’s “circle of favorites.” With cause, the Ungers point accusatory fingers at General Lloyd Fredendall’s gross ineptitude in North Africa, the bumbling of Generals Mark Clark and John Lucas in Italy, and the personal shortcomings in China of Generals Joseph Stilwell (a matter of personality) and later Albert Wedemeyer (a matter of character).
Even his crucial, multi-faceted role in formulating and promoting the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, his finest achievement for which he is best remembered today and for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, is devalued by the authors. The Ungers diminish his importance in the reconstruction of Western Europe to lobbyist, salesman and eponym.
All were protégés. All failed to live up to their advance billings. At the twilight of his long public service Marshall misread as well a five-star maverick whose genius and flawed character he had known ever since operations on the Western Front in The Great War, General Douglas MacArthur. After MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon gamble behind North Korean lines reversed America’s military fortunes during the Korean War, Secretary of Defense Marshall failed to recognize danger in giving him broad discretion in his subsequent push to the Yalu River. An escalated war and a constitutional crisis were two dramatic results of the Secretary’s misplaced confidence.
But even when the Ungers are faithful to the record, they resort to anachronistic nonsense in an attempt to clinch their case against the Army Chief of Staff. “Marshall’s little black book,” they proclaim, “turned up no Napoleons, Hannibals, or Alexander the Greats.” Rejecting a realistic standard of comparison, they betray the lack of analytical rigor that weakens much of their book despite its readability. Passing for fresh insight elsewhere is a procession of innuendo, speculation, oversimplification, and frequently cherry-picked facts. For good measure, the Ungers treat Marshall as a straw man of infallibility and perfection whose destruction is as facile as its erection convenient. They should have invested more time in Lexington.
A Wanna-be Virginia Squire
The authors’ skeptical views are interrelated since they intend to expose a Marshall who was never what he appeared to be. The Ungers’ Marshall is more ordinary and certainly less competent than Pogue’s Marshall. He is also less genuine. Supposedly, his persona of democrat and selfless public servant was a “pose.” It concealed a deeper truth. He was actually, we are told, a wanna-be squire with a closeted sense of superiority. According to the Ungers—historians who apparently double as mind-readers—“he was in his own mind a Virginian” rather than a citizen at large who transcended region.
Their claim may be correct. But what is offered as corroboration? The proof mustered is of two highly speculative parts: first, an assertion that Marshall’s love of fox-hunting “suggested” an identification with Virginia; and, second, an opinion that his purchase in 1940 of Dodona Manor, a retirement home in Leesburg, was an acquisition that “eminently suited his self-image of a Virginia squire.” (So what, pray tell, did his second home, a cottage in Pinehurst, North Carolina, “suit”?)
Neither logic nor evidence favor such conjecture. The one-time voice of Middle America and rabid Anglophobe, editor-publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert R. McCormick, also loved to ride to hounds. His preference in physical activity did not make a chauvinistic Chicagoan a cavalier at heart. Tallyho meant different things to different people.
More damaging, Marshall’s self-appraisal before the Pennsylvania Society of New York in December 1944 contradicts the authors’ notion. After observing that a soldier’s life “leaves little opportunity to call any place home for long,” the Army Chief of Staff expressed “special pride” in history-rich western Pennsylvania, where in Uniontown he was born and came to maturity. “The respect of his home people,” Marshall confessed, “means most to me.”
Marshall’s comments on that occasion should not surprise. His most admired Founding Father (and favorite author), after all, was not George Washington, an authentic Virginia squire, but Benjamin Franklin, the self-made Philadelphia businessman and transplanted Bostonian who could never be confused with landed gentry. And while the General always expressed fondness for his alma mater, he never forgot being Yankee-hazed during his four years at the Virginia Military Institute.
Finally, Marshall was nearly 60, with years of wandering the country and the world behind him, at long last, when he bought Dodona. The stately old house meant for him and his second wife Katherine two satisfactions: a return to small town life that both experienced growing up, along with the convenience of a 35-mile drive to and from Washington, the terminus of his 40-year odyssey.
The Non-Factor Of Health
Then there is the allegation that during Marshall’s years of greatest public trust and responsibility his health was problematic, insinuating that America’s military and foreign relations received less than his full attention as a result. If true, then his failures, like the China Mission of 1946 and the Moscow Foreign Ministers Conference of March-April 1947, can be attributed, at least partly, to a man not equal physically to the demands of his jobs. This version of reality, upon close inspection, proves to be more speculation.
Marshall, in the Ungers’ telling, had undemanding work habits, maintaining “limited” office hours. He seldom labored past 3 in the afternoon as Army Chief of Staff, and no later than 4:30 p.m. as Secretary of State. In other words, his was a “modest daily schedule.” They argue that during the crucial decade after 1939, when World War II erupted in Europe, he was “never a workaholic.”
Some words have elasticity. “Workaholic” happens to be among them. Can a leader who gets to his office at 7:30 a.m., leaves for home during the late afternoon, but who also allows himself, on average, just two days off annually during probably the most crisis-filled nine years in modern history be classified as a “workaholic”? What if, in addition, his first attempt at retirement in 1945 lasts only one day? Why quibble? Marshall was just a plain, old workhorse.
Marshall’s schedule was astonishingly taxing. His stamina was remarkable. Facing unprecedented problems as Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, he worked intensely and efficiently. Yet, wisely, to go the distance he paced himself on a daily basis. The Ungers fail to mention that Marshall rarely took vacations, an omission that qualifies as a classic in cherry-picking facts to make a point.
Oversights are a chronic problem in this biography. For instance, in never consulting the papers of Colonel John Hart Caughey at the Marshall Library (nor his letters and diary edited and published in 2011 by Roger Jeans), the Ungers missed a first-hand perspective on Marshall’s daily regimen in China. Unmindful of Caughey’s observations, they describe an envoy who was “simply too tired” to achieve a successful mediation, who returned home after a few months “for rest” (the real reason was to arrange loans for Chiang Kai-shek’s government), and whose “absence on sick leave undermined the mission.”
This reinterpretation is revisionism on a grand scale. It is curiously reminiscent of an equally baseless claim once in vogue in certain historical circles that the outcome of the wartime Yalta Conference hinged on FDR’s deteriorating health. Both lack dependable documentation. Indeed, in a burst of speculation the Ungers conclude that the purported fatigue of President Truman’s representative “undoubtedly affected his judgment through the long months of negotiations.”
A member of the General’s small staff in Nanking, Colonel Caughey reported a typical workday for his boss as ranging from 10-14 hours. He also provided no indication of impaired judgment. Marshall’s grueling schedule belies General Albert Wedemeyer’s and General Douglas MacArthur’s observations that at the start of his year-long mission Marshall was exhausted and probably not up to the rigors of his assignment.
Wedemeyer’s version, however, published more than ten years after the fact, is compromised his grudge against Marshall for being passed over as Ambassador to China and having his fact-finding report suppressed. By then he also served as an advisor to the rightwing John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion. A protégé who turned viciously on his patron is obviously not the most reliable source. In his memoirs Wedemeyer smeared Marshall as an “outrageous appeaser of the Chinese Communists,” blaming the mission’s failure on his one-time mentor’s “hubris” and “defective character.” Furthermore, he could never resist the siren song of an externally imposed military solution to China’s problems.
Moscow Foreign Ministers Conference Of 1947
In explaining Secretary Marshall’s inability to obtain a Four Power Treaty in Moscow, which functioned as catalyst for two generations of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Ungers again play the health card. They suggest that the new Secretary of State was more interested in conserving his “energies” than in the productivity of his mission. Reputedly, he did not perform well at the stalemated conference. Based largely on New York Times columnist James Reston’s coverage, they insinuate that the Secretary was resting instead of working harder to make the conference a success.
Rather than dawdling, Marshall actually put his time away from mind-numbing speeches and their translations to good use. No masochist, he could endure only so much of Vyacheslav Molotov’s mulishness on Germany’s future and war reparations. He took refuge in his bedroom at Spaso House, the American Ambassador’s residence (not the Embassy building, as the authors wrongly state) to escape a troubling troika: Stalin’s ulterior motives, Molotov’s antics, and Soviet obstructionism.
Forever on the lookout for usable histories, regularly probing the past in search of lessons for the present, Marshall was busy and productive in a way undetected by Reston. In his room he read with profit Sir Harold Nicolson’s recently published Congress of Vienna: A Study of Allied Unity, 1812-1822 (1946). The British diplomat and historian sought to explain how the great powers of Europe created a long, stable peace after the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars. The book’s contents had a bracing effect. Afterwards, with Secretary Marshall comprehending the point and his choice as head of the State Department’s new Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan, providing invaluable assistance, the drift in Western diplomacy ended.
On the Moscow Conference the Marshall Carter Papers, also housed at the Marshall Library but not consulted by the Ungers, would have proven a much richer and more reliable source on what happened in Moscow than a lone column by a newspaperman looking for a story for the home front. Carter, then a colonel, arranged Marshall’s daily schedule and took minutes at the conferences 43 meetings.
Two Illustrative Misjudgments
Because the authors’ dubious interpretations are numerous, two representative episodes from Marshall’s public life must suffice to capture further the “Unger Method”: the Anglo-American controversy over a cross-channel invasion of northern France during World War II and Marshall’s postwar opposition to American military intervention on the side of Chiang Kai-Shek’s government during the Chinese Civil War.
A. The Cross-Channel Invasion
During the Second World War challenges of coalition warfare, particularly those involving unity of command and single theater commanders, bred friction and feuding among the Allies. Acute disagreements between British and American strategists over how best to defeat the Axis powers also became politically complicated, especially since President Franklin Roosevelt opposed his own war planners and supported Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s position for a time.
The biggest squabble was over where to establish a Second Front in Europe. It pitted Army Chief of Staff Marshall against Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke. Marshall’s advocacy of the earliest feasible cross-channel invasion, preferably in the fall of 1942 of spring of 1943, clashed with Brooke’s peripheralism, an ambitious Mediterranean strategy that included prospective invasions of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, besides Allied landings in Sicily and Italy.
A dozen years after V-E Day this Anglo-American rivalry went public and got personal. Marshall’s unwillingness to write his own memoir put him at a disadvantage in the renewal of an old unpleasantness. In his war diaries, first published in 1957, the haughty Brooke attacked his American counterpart as a “mediocrity” and “military incompetent.” His appraisal of General Dwight Eisenhower was even nastier. Perceiving a need to pick sides in this quarrel, the Ungers ally with Brooke. “Pressing for SLEDGEHAMMER in 1942 [a cross-channel invasion of 5-10 divisions, mainly British],” they declare, “was a serious error … on Marshall’s part.”
But was Marshall’s strategic judgment wrong-headed and “myopic” in the context of the times? The devil, to be sure, is in the context more often than in the details. Even the highly critical Ungers concede at one point that Marshall “fully understood the vital role of Russia in the war against the German army,” as well as the precariousness of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. Not until the winter of 1943 did the tide of battle turn decisively at Stalingrad. Afterwards, Marshall no longer lived with the nightmare of a Soviet military collapse.
A counterfactual analysis with Josef Stalin negotiating a separate peace with Adolf Hitler, repeating in effect World War I’s Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, puts Alan Brooke’s disdain for Marshall’s priorities in a different, more favorable light. For Marshall strategic choices were never as obvious as they were for Brooke, a veteran of The Great War who had to battle the ghosts of the Somme and Passchendaele in deciding about the timing of British soldiers returning to France.
Marshall’s choices boiled down two options: Do you risk a military catastrophe with a premature cross-channel invasion? Or do you risk a potentially greater disaster at a later time when the Wehrmacht was free to fight on a single front (finally heeding Hitler’s own admonition in Mein Kampf) with Russia on the sidelines? Circumstances posed for him a terrible dilemma.
American military historian Paul Miles has calmly observed that, rather than a contest between a lightweight and a heavyweight as represented by the Ungers, Marshall and Brooke had “divergent approaches to strategic planning.” Determining who was correct in this clash of priorities wrapped in a heated disagreement—and, for good measure, whether the 90-division U.S. Army Marshall sent into ground combat was the proper decision—are arguments without end.
Maybe Marshall did err in both instances, but surely contingency in history carries more weight than hindsight. Of special relevance in weighing whose judgment was sounder is the fact that Alan Brooke, who perched himself on the intellectual high ground, had insisted at the time that any cross-channel invasion could not be launched until 1945 or 1946 at the earliest!
B. Another Big Dilemma, This Time in Asia
For Marshall’s inability to end the Chinese Civil War the Ungers assign him a share of the blame. He had been, in their account of his diplomatic effort, not only too fatigued but also “too optimistic about the power of good will and sweet reason to bring together the adversaries.” Never was he “forceful enough.” In yet another invocation of the straw man, they rate his performance as “imperfect.”
In addition, Marshall supposedly provided “fuel for the fire” of the McCarthyites, those followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy on the Far Right who denounced a great patriot for his allegedly subversive, pro-Communist part in “losing” China. As an example of innuendo, the authors also write that “the polished and worldly Chou En Lai [Mao Tse-Tung’s right-hand man] … had charmed and perhaps disarmed [Marshall] as well.” Had the Ungers combined familiarity with primary materials with mastery of their subject they would have understood that Chou came in a distant second to Madame Chiang Kai-shek in the charm offensive in China. More importantly, the charm factor—ask Chiang on Formosa—never clouded Marshall’s judgment either in the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, or on foreign assignments.
The Great Vietnam Misadventure of the 1960s, witnessed today silently by more than 58,000 names on a polished black wall in Washington, stands as a reminder of the huge debt of gratitude owed George Catlett Marshall. A fact obscured by his later vilification by McCarthyites, the soldier-turned-statesman kept the United States out of an earlier Asian quagmire. He grasped the limits of American power which his detractors could not readily comprehend.
The Ungers wrap up their critical analysis of the failed China Mission with a seemingly incontrovertible retrospective: in light of the ultimate victory in 1949 of Mao’s Communists forces over Chiang’s Kuomintang Special Envoy and America’s next Secretary of State Marshall had not “accomplish[ed] much good for his nation.”
In fact, Marshall’s China legacy has long been undervalued by historians. While granting that China’s problems upon his arrival in Chungking in December 1945 were “intractable,” the Ungers then disagree implicitly with Marshall’s bedrock belief that his country has never been omnipotent and must therefore calibrate means and ends in its foreign relations. Mediator Marshall embraced the common sense of the matter: America could not correct the fundamental political, economic and military weaknesses in Chiang’s Nationalist government.
A realist, he was convinced that dispatching military advisors would lead inevitably to ground combat troops and then to an open-ended military commitment that the American people would not knowingly support. He appreciated, that is, the perils of incrementalism. “It would involve this government,” he predicted in testimony before Congress, “in a continuing commitment from which it would practically be impossible to withdraw.”
The Great Vietnam Misadventure of the 1960s, witnessed today silently by more than 58,000 names on a polished black wall in Washington, stands as a reminder of the huge debt of gratitude owed George Catlett Marshall. A fact obscured by his later vilification by McCarthyites, the soldier-turned-statesman kept the United States out of an earlier Asian quagmire. He grasped the limits of American power which his detractors could not readily comprehend. He also understood the historical and cultural resistance of other peoples to the preferences and will power of foreigners.
While Mao’s victory in the civil war was regrettable, there was something potentially far worse than the wrong side winning an Asian civil war cum revolution. A professional soldier helped to spare his countrymen the folly of Vietnam on a far more frightening scale of lives and national resources twenty years earlier.
Opposing Marshall’s counsel to President Harry Truman at the time were influential Republican congressmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s Ambassador in China, and much of the American news media, especially Henry Luce’s widely read publications Time and Life. Secretary Marshall stood his ground. His courageous refusal to intervene militarily on Chiang’s behalf constitutes an element of his greatness.
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Unfortunately, little of George Marshall’s larger distinctiveness is conveyed in this attempted take-down. Even his crucial, multi-faceted role in formulating and promoting the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, his finest achievement for which he is best remembered today and for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize, is devalued by the authors. The Ungers diminish his importance in the reconstruction of Western Europe to lobbyist, salesman and eponym. On this topic, too, the authors’ reach exceeds their factual grasp.
Why this revisionist work should be so disappointing, constructed as it is on a shallow scoop of research instead of the requisite deep excavation, is puzzling. Begun long ago by historian Stanley Hirshson, a biographer of George Patton, who died in 2003, his friends the Ungers took over his project and brought it, ten years later, to completion. In all that time they unearthed virtually no new evidence and broke no new ground. It would be fair to say that their efforts turned into a slow rush to misjudgment. George Marshall deserved more respect.